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CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE WITH THE BLUES

I want to tell you a story from 'way back:

Truck on down and gig me, jack,

In eighteen hundred and sixty-five, 

A hep cat started some jive, 

He said, "Come on, gates, and jump with me

At the Juneteenth Jamboree."

 

The rhythm was swinging at the picnic ground,

Fried chicken floating all around;

Everybody there was full of glee,

Trumpets blaring in the air,

Mellow barbecue everywhere,

Clarinets moaning in the hall;

All the gates was having a ball,

They didn't know how to cut no rug,

But all the cats had a gal and jug,

Everybody happy as they could be,

At the Juneteenth Jamboree!

The 4th of July holidays are upon us, which provides a good occasion to think about blues and celebration of political holidays. Blues artists are often booked at municipal events celebrating the 4th, but the topic of Independence Day doesn’t seem to figure too much in blues lyrics. This may have something to do with the fact that most blues are ostensibly about romantic relationships.  But it’s also the case that celebrating the Declaration of Independence from United Kingdom rule in 1776 might not resonate too much with people whose descendants were enslaved at the time. 

For many African Americans “independence day” is known as Juneteenth, and more precisely June 19th, 1865, when Union soldiers announced to African Americans in Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over, and that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, had theoretically been in effect since January 1, 1863, but that was little comfort to those still under bondage. 

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article -  http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article - http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

Early celebrations of Juneteenth were multi-faceted, including education, encouragement of self-improvement, fun and games, barbecuing, and, quite simply, a celebration of the ability to freely gather, a basic right deprived during the slavery era. Churches were often the site of Juneteenth celebrations, but eventually many sites were purchased or acquired that were dedicated to the holiday. 

Recognition from local officials varied—in many areas the holiday was ignored, while in others it was a part of broader celebrations. For instance, between 1936 and 1951 the Texas State Fair included a Juneteenth celebration, with the initial one drawing between 150,000 and 200,000 celebrants for events including a “cabaret show” featuring top entertainers.

The Civil Rights movement, with its emphasis on independence and self-pride, rejuvenated Juneteenth Celebrations, and today they’re regularly celebrated by local municipalities around the country, sometimes officially, as in Texas, where it became a state holiday in 1980. 

Which takes us back to the blues. It’s certainly not the case that blues is essential to Juneteenth—the celebration predates the emergence of the music—but for many decades blues has been central to Juneteenth Celebrations, which nowadays often take place on the Saturday nearest to the 19th.  The 1940 song above by Arkansas native Louis Jordan, the most popular blues performer during that decade, is one of the few blues songs that address Juneteenth, but its celebration of downhome pleasures suggest that blues was long welcome at the get-togethers.

 

Unsurprisingly, Juneteenth events are particularly popular in Texas, with blues-themed gatherings held in many smaller locales as well as in Dallas, Austin, and Houston, where the Juneteenth Festival, established in 1977 by jazz activist Lanny Steele’s SumArts Organization, was for many years one of the largest free outdoor blues events in the country. The Houston celebrationserved as a public forum for honoring the city’s rich, if under recognized blues history, with different artists or individuals celebrated each year.

Here in Mississippi the most long-lasting blues-themed event is the Juneteenth Festival in Columbus’ historic 7th Avenue District, which has been held for more than twenty years, A Google search reveals many Juneteenth Celebrations across that country that are advertised as blues, R&B and jazz. And just like July 4, Juneteenth is likewise associated with downhome food, as hinted at in the the “Juneteenth Rhythm and Ribs” festival in Round Rock, Texas, and, in Pompano Beach, Florida, “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Emancipation and Freedom at the Blues and Sweet Potato Pie Festival.”

The pleasures celebrated in Louis Jordan's "Juneteenth Jamboree" still resonate today, as expressed in this 2014 take of the song by jazz singer Catherine Russell. 

For more information on Juneteenth visithttp://www.juneteenth.com

And on Juneteenth in Texas, visit - https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lkj01

Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana

On June 10 the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum in Angola will host the symposium “Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana,” which addresses the history of music at the infamous prison, which is bordered by the Mississippi River. In addition to talks by scholars, there will be performances by current prison bands and an appearance by Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, who spent time in Angola as a resident.

The musical heritage of Angola Penitentiary is best known due to work of father and son folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax, who discovered the musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter there during a 1933 visit. Following his release, Ledbetter traveled with the Lomaxes, and became an influential performer in folk music circles.

But why were the Lomaxes at Angola to begin with?  Folklorists are often interested in older cultural expressions that are fading out due to the passage of time and people’s adoption of newer cultural trends, and the Lomaxes—as well as other folklorists—sought out prisons because of their relative isolation from modern media and pop culture. 

For many decades Angola, like the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, was run as a working plantation, and inmates toiled at farm work and tasks including clearing ground and chopping timber using simple technology. Likewise, they were largely shut off from popular culture in the form of radio and records, and had to entertain themselves, sometimes via songs that stemmed back to the 1800s.

 

Ledbetter, with his enormous repertoire of blues, ballads and children’s songs, was a relative exception, and the more common recordings made by the Lomaxes and others were of the songs prisoners sang to accompany work. The following film, made by Pete and Toshi Seeger at a Texas penitentiary in the 1960s, demonstrated how workers used song to coordinate tasks as well as to pass the time.

 

In 1933 John A. and Alan Lomax also visited Parchman, John Lomax recorded blues pioneer Booker White there in 194,  and Alan would return there in the late 1940s and in 1959. The Lomaxes captured powerful recordings of prisoners performing blues, group work songs and “field hollers” – unaccompanied work songs – such as this “levee camp holler” by Johnny Lee Moore

Dust-to-Digital's box set of Alan Lomax recordings from Parchman can be found here.

To find out more about this history of music at Parchman, you can visit the webpage [ http://msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/parchman-farm ] for the Mississippi Blues Trail marker that’s placed on Highway 49 across the main gate from Parchman, which is about 25 miles away from Delta State. 

Last year the Dust-to-Digital label also issued a beautifully packaged boxed set of Lomax’ late ‘40s and 1959 recordings at Parchman, featuring essays and many photos from inside the infamous penitentiary.

Facebook link to symposium - To find out more about the conference, visit their Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1299718390056944/  

BB King Homecoming

Welcome to the “Blues Notes” where we’ll be highlighting events, activities and people that illuminate the richness of culture in the Delta region.  We’ll touch on both general topics as well as specific events, such as the annual B.B. King Homecoming celebration in Indianola, which takes place this Saturday.

King died last May at 89 years old, but the event is continuing as a celebration of his life, singular career and commitment to his home state. The free event takes place on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Cultural Center, which opened in 1998 and is now also the site of King’s final resting place. 

The festival starts at 10:00 a.m., and there’s music on two stages through about 8:00 p.m. This year’s headliner is Keb Mo’, and also featured are Teeny Tucker, the B.B. King Museum Allstars, the Big Time Rhythm and Blues Band, Steve Azar & the King’s Men, and Jake & the Pearl Street Jumpers.

After the festival King traditionally played a private show at the historic Club Ebony, and this year the show, which begins at 8:00 p.m.,, will feature guitarist/vocalist Lil Ray Neal with former King band members Reggie Richards (bass), Herman Jackson (drums) and Walter King (sax), with a special appearance by Steve Azar. Tickets are $50/$100.

King’s death was heartbreaking for his many fans around the world, and it hit particularly hard in Indianola, his proclaimed “hometown.”  King was born in 1925 in tiny Berclair, about twenty miles to the east, but he moved to Indianola in his teens, and it was there that he played in a gospel group, found a job driving a tractor, got married, and, most importantly, took up the blues. 

He left Indianola for Memphis in the late ‘40s, and by the early ‘50s King was a national star. He would return home to Indianola to perform on occasion – his second wife, Sue Evans, was the daughter of the owner of the Club Ebony! – but his annual “homecomings” wouldn't become regular until the 1980s.

King first began returning to Mississippi on a regular basis in 1973 with the creation of the Medgar Evers Homecoming celebration, which paid tribute to the life of the Civil Rights martyr, and King would remain the celebration’s main attraction into the 2000s. He was more ambivalent about returning to Indianola, though, because of his perceived notion that his mostly African American band wasn’t getting a full welcome by the community.

Local fans organized the first homecoming event in the late ‘70s, and it took on a regular structure in 1986, when the Chamber of Commerce took over the event and King’s return was celebrated in tandem with Indianola’s centennial. Held on a Friday in early June, the daytime event concluded with a performance by King, whose lighthearted approach to the show was epitomized by a dance contest featuring local kids. 

King would spend the early part of the evening having dinner with old friends, and often would hit the stage at Club Ebony at midnight or later. After the show King would generously give his time to admirers. By the early morning he was on his bus southbound to participate in several days of events associated with the Medgar Evers celebration. 

In his last years King cut back on the time he committed to his annual return, and in 2014 the Indianola Homecoming was billed as his “last time.” It was a bittersweet performance, and while his advanced age was evident there were moments where he demonstrated clearly why he was dubbed the king of the blues. 

 During the 2015 International Conference on the Blues, in partnership with The Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the International Delta Blues Project, the Mississippi Blues Commission proclaimed B.B. King as “Mississippi’s Secretary of the State of the Blues.” The Commission gave a framed proclamation signed by all of the living governors of the state of Mississippi to representatives from the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. For more info, see http://www.internationaldeltabluesproject.com/news1/2016/5/5/mississippi-blues-commission-names-bb-king-secretary-of-state-of-the-blues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Senator's Place hosts GRAMMY discussion

In order to help the community better understand economic opportunities related to the opening of GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, a gathering was held on Monday, February 22 at The Senator's Place in Cleveland. Representatives of the museum were present along with regional elected officials, Delta State administration and department heads, and members of the Mississippi Development Authority. The discussion addressed a broad variety topics on entrepreneurship opportunities, local ordinances and laws, and educational visions involving the museum. Attendees were treated to a meal provided by the restaurant. 

Attendees surveyed after the gathering responded overwhelmingly that this was a worthwhile event.

Comments from attendees:

Good info, good food, really good experience
This is a great economic development opportunity for Cleveland. The presenters were very knowledgeable.
Enjoyed everything, very informative